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Top 10 tips for new (and all other) priests Print
Guest column
Thursday, Jul. 15, 2010 -- 12:00 AM

Guest Column

Editor's note: The following is the homily given by Msgr. James Bartylla, vicar general, at Fr. Gregory Ihm's Mass of Thanksgiving, St. Clement Church, Lancaster, June 27.

Fr. Greg Ihm, Bishop Morlino, and my brother priests, it's an honor to give the homily at Father Ihm's Mass of Thanksgiving at his home parish of St. Clement in Lancaster. Ray and Sherri, you should be very proud of your son who will make an exemplary priest.

It is also a privilege to come back to my adopted home of Grant County where I spent seminarian summers and my first years of priesthood. This includes time in Dickeyville, Lancaster, Kieler, Sinsinawa, Bloomington, and Patch Grove. In fact, I first met Fr. Greg Ihm at the Kieler picnic shortly after he finished a TEC retreat and decided to enter the seminary.

Father Greg spent most of his years in the seminary with me as his vocations director. As you know, Greg, vocations directors are always prone to giving advice to seminarians and maybe even newly ordained priests. I have to say there's a bit of that still in me as a former vocations director. So today I offer you my top 10 tips on the priesthood as we look forward to your priestly ministry.

Tip number 1

You won't always like it. Msgr. Kevin Holmes told me so in his homily at my Mass of Thanksgiving. Bishop Morlino likewise states it very succinctly when he says the priesthood involves sailing on a battleship, not a cruise ship. Not every storm or difficulty in your priestly ministry should be viewed as a vocational crisis. In fact, there will be many times that exhaustion, frustration, and sadness will enter your priesthood. This is not a sign of a vocational crisis but a sign that you're living your vocation.

Tip number 2

Your humanity is essential, and in using Bishop Morlino's sailing analogy, you should sail near land to keep an eye on the coast. Father Greg, be sure to keep Grant County close to your heart. God decided to raise you here in this "Nazareth" for a reason. The wholesomeness and faithfulness of Grant County will serve you well; don't lose it.

On the other hand, it is said, "Where religion recedes, superstition proceeds." Father Greg, be sure to hang out with non-believers and get to know them; you'll have ample opportunity for this in Madison. Be patient with non-believers and love them; they have great questions and very few answers. You'll end up pitying them as they appear so lost in the world without that eternal hope that defines the Christian. There is a lot of self-loathing wrapped up in the moral relativism of today's culture. The Tower of Babel of the Bible is today the ranch home of relativism. The freedom that sacrifices truth for the drug of immediate pleasure has made original sin into an original addiction.

Tip number 3

Sacred reading does for the mind what the Eucharist does for the soul, or read those sea maps in your officer's cabin. Father Greg, read sacred Scripture every day; it is a letter from home, as Augustine says. Also, from one Angelicum graduate to another, be sure to read St. Thomas Aquinas every day; an article a day keeps the heresy away.

Tip number 4

You can't please everyone. The captain must rule the ship but he should not be a tyrant. Father Greg, work to please God and have faith others will follow. Some people will unreasonably want you to be perfect. It is a kind of cruelty when someone wants to turn you into their own personal Messiah of their own choosing. We don't choose our Messiah. It's an impossible road that you should avoid.

Most people will ask you to be virtuous, and you should live up to this. I'm so glad people are still shocked by the priest abuse scandal. They expect virtue from priests because God expects it, and the people deserve virtue from us. Others will ask you not to be virtuous in an attempt to bring you as the priest down to their level. They want to soothe their conscience through the evisceration of your priesthood and its virtue. This is another road to avoid.

A few saintly souls in the parish will immediately see past you to Christ. They greet you when you arrive at the parish, love you while you're there, and say goodbye to you when you leave, but they don't live for your personality, they live for Christ. There are some great examples in Lancaster and Grant County. I particularly think of Francis Richels at St. Clement Parish in Lancaster who was a model of virtue for me during my seminarian summer at the parish. I also think of Bob Bodden at St. Mary Parish in Platteville whom I worked with in the Southwest Vocations Club.

Tip number 5

Pray, pray, and pray some more. In other words, look at the North Star to guide the ship. It is true that God's power triumphs over everything, but humble and suffering prayer prevails over God himself. He will be merciful in answering your prayers, but it will be a stern mercy for those whom he loves. The Cross is never far behind.

Tip number 6

God's in charge of your time, or God provides the wind and we must raise the sails to cast into the deep. Your vocation is not a job; it's not an adventure; it's a mystery. You're not quite sure what God will do next with you. Father Greg, watch for the peak moments that God gives you; relish them and remember them.

I remember one of the great moments of my priesthood. I was in Milwaukee a bit ahead of time for a provincial meeting of vocation directors. Thus, I stopped into a café for an hour or so to catch up on my reading. I entered and ordered some tea. The barista behind the counter gave me a quizzical look as if she had encountered an endangered species standing before her. I don't think she ever met a priest up close before in his Roman collar.

She said to me, "You're one of those Catholic priests, aren't you?" I responded that indeed I am a Catholic priest. She thought for a moment and then said, "You're one of those guys who is celibate, aren't you?" She actually said this in a more "earthy" way, but I've phrased it a bit more delicately for the purposes of this homily. I replied, "Yes, I am." She thought a little further and said, "How do you live!?" I had a good chuckle at her spontaneous surprise that someone could actually live celibately.

As I went to pick up my drink from her, I decided this was just too interesting to pass up. I said to her, "Susie, how is life treating you?" (Susie is not her real name.) She replied, "Not so well." It turned out she recently had a miscarriage and her hospital and family, in this age of lack of respect for human life, treated her rather coldly, as if it was more of a tissue to be removed than a child that was lost.

For the next 15 minutes, I spoke with her about her lost daughter and her continuing role as her daughter's mother and the need to pray for her daughter. I told her that she will always be her daughter's mother and she still has a caring duty for her daughter. She was noticeably moved by this rather simple recognition of her continuing motherhood. As I left the café, the irony was not lost on me or her -- it took a celibate priest to tell a mother that she was a mother.

Tip number 7

Your family life remains, but it changes. In our sea analogy, be sure to keep a family photo in your cabin on the ship. Father Greg, you'll see members of your family in a different light through the eyes of priesthood, but your heart for them should stay the same. They should see you differently as well. You're still the Greg they knew, but you're Christ's now. The Gospel today in Luke 9:61-62 speaks eloquently of this certain familial change in response to the call of Jesus.

Tip number 8

Convert the believers, for the sailors on deck need their captain too. Many Catholics today are converted from unbelief but are unconverted from the culture. Their politics, not their religion, rules their lives. Nature abhors a vacuum and the Gospel abhors attachment to the flesh. Our Catholic faith isn't there to divinize our politics but to tame our politics to serve the Gospel.

Tip number 9

Grow in the liturgy or in other words, keep practicing those sailor's knots. Father Greg, you know well the saying, "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi." If your liturgy stagnates, your faith will stagnate. I recommend reaching a liturgical maturity that breathes on the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms of the Mass so you know where you've come from and where you're going.

Tip number 10

"Ubi amor, ibi oculus" or "Where there is love, there is vision." It's my favorite quote of St. Thomas Aquinas. In using our sailing analogy, love your ship to reach your port of call. Father Greg, to love Christ, you must love His Church. Holy Mother Church is an anvil that has broken many hammers during the centuries. If you obey her and love her through obedience to the bishop and the teachings of the Church, she is the handsome battleship that will bring you to the peaceful port of happiness in heaven.

Msgr. James Bartylla is the vicar general of the Diocese of Madison.